In the 19th century, one innovation after another was being invented: photography, the telegraph, the telephone. These discoveries were generally well known, but were not encountered on a daily basis by most people. Photography was perhaps the first of these to be widely used, followed by the telegram and then the telephone. The first general radio broadcasts, however, didn’t take place in the Netherlands until after WWI. 

Confrontation with change

Nevertheless, people were increasingly confronted with progress. The construction of new infrastructure was one of the most visible changes. Railway construction started in 1839, followed in 1880 in more rural areas by the first steam tram lines. 

Gas light was implemented for the first time in city streets and plazas, and when the first automobiles drove onto the scene at the start of the 20th century, roads began to be asphalted bit by bit.

Some novelties became spectacles. This was literally true for film in its first years, as well as for the newly discovered X-ray, which later proved to be so dangerous without proper handling.  

Growing prosperity meant that these new technologies steadily found their way into Dutch living rooms. As more and more houses began to be supplied with electricity and gas from the council (generated from coal in city gas factories), it became increasingly commonplace for households to have all sorts of appliances, such as boilers for hot running water. 

On one hand, these changes in society led to people wanting to keep up with the times – they glorified technological progress and the (elite) lifestyle that came along with it. On the other hand, many movements started up that saw these technological advances as the root of all society’s problems.

Modernity in early film

These developments are amply represented in all genres of early film. Feature films not only showed the modern lifestyle as surrounded by an aura of glamour, they also depicted modernity as the source of urban problems and moral decay.

At least as illustrative, but even more concrete and detailed are the government and propaganda films made around this time. These try to persuade people to hook up electricity in their homes, to cook with gas, to obey traffic laws or to send their post by airmail to the Dutch East Indies. 

In many industrial films, the leading role seems to be reserved for mechanical processes, mass production and the authority of science. This is often personified by a bespectacled lab technician in a white jacket who’s holding a test tube up to the light.

These films have their own counterparts in the folkloric films that were made to document disappearing rural customs. These were often more-or-less staged scenes, because rural communities had already come into contact with modernity and many of them had stopped wearing traditional costumes.  

It’s ironic, but film was actually one of the reasons the rural population stopped dressing in traditional attire: once they’d seen the attractive and cosmopolitan Asta Nielsen, they never wanted to wear wooden shoes again.


more information

If you are looking for more material from our collection, please contact

Ms. Leenke Ripmeester
phone +31 (0)20 5891 426
mobile +31 (0)6 4118 9635